San Mateo day school recruits South African as new director

Tuchis-slapping athletes, hubris and general disrespect for elders do not prepare youngsters to become menschen, according to the British school of thought.

While most students at the Jewish Day School of the North Peninsula in San Mateo are hardly delinquent, their new director, Mervyn Danker, originally of South Africa, says it couldn't hurt to cultivate a British-style "culture of decency and respect."

"Teaching kids respect, responsibility, trustworthiness and kindness hasn't received as much attention in the last few years as it should," Danker, 50, said in a phone interview from his present school in Connecticut.

Instead, American children get mixed messages about what constitutes acceptable behavior.

"The behavior of sports heroes is all too often disgusting. Basketball players that attack referees, playing to the crowd in a distasteful way after the football touchdown. There is no humility."

Danker is not alone in his sentiments on sportsmanship. The National Basketball Association last week cracked down on Chicago Bulls player Dennis Rodman for slurring Mormons during a recent game. The chronically misbehaved player must pay a fine of $50,000 before returning to the court.

The new administrator of the kindergarten-through-grade-five day school has made a career of Jewish education and character-building. His academic style was honed in South Africa, which inherited the British school system and its strait-laced behavioral codes. There, students stand at attention when teachers and administrators walk into a classroom, doff their caps when they encounter elders and play sports for the love of the game rather than recognition, he said.

While Danker has not practiced British-style discipline for eight years and doesn't plan to regiment the 85-student San Mateo school, he contends that "America is ripe for bringing more of that into the curricula. This is what parents want for their kids."

In San Mateo, school staff have created a more nurturing environment to instill the same values touted by their new director, said Charles Bronitsky, the school board president. Danker agrees that showing students how to be kind and respectful can be as effective as strict discipline.

Nevertheless, he said, misbehaved kids will not be tolerated. Any rambunctious student can expect to be separated from the class to ponder his or her ways, and a note sent home.

Danker also is a marathon runner and an avid sports buff. In South Africa and Australia, he played and coached college rugby, taking one team to the World Maccabiah Games.

The administrator says being closer to his daughter in Los Angeles was a big motivation for the move. And he couldn't resist Jewish Day School of the North Peninsula — "a jewel in the crown of Jewish day schools in America" — because of its committed teachers, parents and volunteers.

He replaces former director Sandra Wolf, who will follow her rabbi husband to a new pulpit in Mississippi.

Bronitsky said Danker has the longest — about 20 years — and most impressive administrative track record of the 40 applicants for the job.

"The school has been medium- sized for a number of years," Bronitsky said. "We thought it was time to grow. He has turned smaller schools into large institutions with waiting lists more than once."

Danker impressed board members and a hiring committee of education experts by weaving Judaica, science and current events into the same lesson during a demonstration.

"His whole persona exudes the kind of person that you want to run your school…to translate the Jewish spirit to children," Bronitsky said.

Danker plans to continue the school's enrichment programs, designed to teach academic concepts by exposing youngsters to real-life experiences and people in the arts and sciences. He also wants to add a family education program to encourage parents to bone up on their Jewish education.

He claims that students' test scores already are good. He is more interested in what the tests don't measure — "a degree of excitement and intellectual curiosity when they come home…and emotional, physical and spiritual development."

The new chief will assume his command in August. The school year will begin following the High Holy Days.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.